Box turtles of the genus Terrapene only occur in North America. The name Terrapene is appropriately derived from a native American (Algonquian) word for turtle. In the United States, two separate species groups are recognized: the common box turtle group (carolina) and the ornate group (ornata).

The Common Box Turtle

Four races of the common box turtle (T. carolina) are recognized in the U.S., where they occur in the eastern states from Maine down to the Mexican border and beyond. Various "intergrades" also occur. These "intergrades" show characteristics of two or more of the sub-species and are found in regions where the sub-species overlap.

Three-toed box turtle, T. carolina triunguis

Three-toed box turtle
The author's three-toed box turtle nesting
Photograph by Francisco Velasquez

Three-toed box turtles are small turtles, usually with plain brown or olive carapaces sometimes patterned with yellow lines or marks. The plastron is the same drab color as the carapace. The skin is brown or gray, with variable amounts of red, orange, yellow or white on the head and front legs. As their name suggests, they usually (but not always) have three toes on their hind feet. Sexing them can be difficult. Both sexes have relatively short tails and flat plastrons. If a pair is available, the male can be seen to have a larger tail with the vent opening located past the edge of the carapace. Males often have the bright red eyes shown by many male box turtles, and commonly have areas of solid red or white color on their heads and fore limbs. If kept in a confined area males will attempt to mount the females throughout the spring and summer months.

I maintain an adult pair that I have had for over 6 years in a 10 feet by 12 feet pen. They spend much of their time buried in the mounds of compost provided for them with only their heads showing, ever alert for any food item that may go by. While having the typical preference for live food (snails and worms) and fruit, they seem to eat more green vegetables than my other box turtles. I supplement this diet with Purina trout chow, which they eat with gusto. I have observed mating only in the spring. The female is prolific, laying multiple clutches of 4-5 eggs, and always late at night. I usually harvest the eggs and incubate them indoors, but for the last 3 years hatchlings have appeared in the enclosure from undetected nests. Finding these hatchlings can be a real chore. They tend to remain hidden under the compost. I rear the hatchlings indoors on a moist potting soil substrate that is deep enough for them to bury themselves in. The hatchlings will learn to eat trout chow, and I have raised them to adulthood almost entirely on trout chow and small amounts of seasonal fruits.

Eastern box turtle, T. carolina carolina

Eastern box turtle
Eastern box turtle nesting
Photograph by Michael J. Connor

Eastern box turtles are among the most attractive and widely known of all turtles. An eastern box turtle has even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp! Their appearance is very variable. The basic color of the carapace may be light brown to black, but both the carapace and the skin are brightly marked with yellows and oranges. I acquired two males in 1981 when I first moved to Los Angeles and thirteen years later they are still thriving. Until 1988, when I moved into a house with a yard, the two box turtles lived in a glass tank in my living room. They were easy to keep, they always defecated in their water bowl and they would let me know when they were hungry by banging on the glass! Soon after getting them, I learned that snails were these box turtles' all time favorite food. Several times a week my living room would resound with the crunch of snail shells and slurpy grunts; box turtles are noisy eaters! I obtained the snails by hunting in the alleys of Santa Monica late at night. To reduce the risks of pesticide poisoning I purged the snails by feeding them romaine lettuce for a few days before offering them. Now, the two box turtles live in enclosures outdoors. Each enclosure has a small pond, piles of lawn clippings and leaves, decaying tree stumps, and shrubs to provide shade. They find a greater variety of insects and bugs out there than I could ever provide.

Eastern box turtles are protected from collection in most states in which they occur, and quite rightly so. I adopted a rather battered but healthy female, who was turned into the adoptions committee by a member who was moving. A long term captive, she settled down well. After three months I put her out with the larger of the males and she subsequently laid a clutch of 5 eggs. The eggs were incubated in damp vermiculite at 30° C (86° F). Five hatchlings emerged after 68 days.

Gulf Coast box turtle, T. carolina major

Gulf Coast box turtles are the largest of the common box turtle group, and tend to have the most pronounced flaring of the rear marginal scutes. The skin color is typically a uniform deep black or brown color, broken only by white on the chin and lower jaw. The black or brown carapace may be marked with faint yellow spots or striations. Males have longer tails than the females and a definite plastral concavity, but commonly lack the red eye color found in other male box turtles. Males are very aggressive towards each other, and should be kept apart to avoid the risk of a fatality.